‘I’d never seen a campus look like a ghost town’: Football expert Tom Lemming on how the business of recruiting has been temporarily grounded

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Tom Lemming fell 2,000 miles short of his average of 60,000 miles driven around the United States, interviewing the top college football prospects for his annual yearbook.

After interviewing 75 recruits in Chandler, Ariz., and at UCLA, Lemming realized two weeks ago that the coronavirus pandemic was too much of a health threat for him to continue planned visits to the Bay Area, Oregon and Washington.

Lemming changed course instead and headed East, where he made a brief pit stop at the Billy the Kid grave in Fort Sumner, N.M., before eventually returning to his Chicago-area home.

“I noticed the expressways were empty,” said Lemming, a history buff who also plans summer trips that coincide with home games at a Cubs minor-league affiliate or near the home of a former Cubs great, such as Don Kessinger in Oxford, Miss., between player interviews in Memphis, Tenn., and Starkville, Miss.

Fortunately for Lemming, who has produced his Prep Football Report since 1979, he already met his top 100 prospects in person and estimated he has spoken to 295 of the top 300 players who will be featured in his 2020 book, which likely will fill 270 pages and include bios on each prospect and their favorite colleges.

But his last large organized gathering March 14 at the famed Janss Steps on the UCLA campus was an omen.

After arriving from Arizona — where he caught up with longtime friend and third-base coach Brian Butterfield after watching an Angels game in Tempe — Lemming arrived on the spacious UCLA campus at 6 a.m. with his questionnaires and clipboards.

Two hours later, about 60 invited players and their parents arrived, but that was the extent of movement on the spacious campus.

“I’d never seen a campus look like a ghost town,” said Lemming, adding the campus was virtually empty as he and two friends completed their interviews around 11 a.m.

During the UCLA trip, Lemming noticed several parents started to greet him with elbows instead of handshakes.

The largely barren campus convinced Lemming it would be wise to bypass the bulk of his remaining journey as well as a scheduled lunch in Westlake Village, Calif., with Dick Butkus, White Sox announcer Ed Farmer and actor Jim Caviezel, who wanted to meet the Hall of Fame Bears linebacker.

As a consolation to his postponed trip, Lemming said he already visited the Bay Area, Oregon and Washington last fall and eventually called the players he planned to meet in person. Concerns regarding the virus and a potential snowstorm also swayed him from a side trip to Colorado.

Lemming estimates he already has interviewed 75% of the top players for the 2021-22 class.

“I don’t want to take a chance” on catching the virus, said Lemming, who estimates he has suffered food poisoning five times in his 41 years of traveling through thousands of towns around the US.

If the coronavirus subsides to the point that people can resume their normal lives, Lemming plans to make separate trips to Michigan and South Carolina.

The latter visit is extremely important to Lemming because he often watches Cubs prospects when his schedule permits.

For instance, Lemming hopes he can watch Class A Myrtle Beach before stopping in Columbia, S.C., and then make a stop near Knoxville, Tenn., to see top pitching prospect Brailyn Marquez and prized catcher Miguel Amaya for Double-A Tennessee.

Lemming was one of the first to find out the Cubs agreed to terms with sixth-round pick Ethan Hearn, the top high school catcher in the 2019 draft.

It turned out Lemming had a longtime association with Ronnie Cottrell, who helped build Florida State into a national football power in the 1990s as chief recruiter and happened to coach Hearn, a linebacker, at Mobile (Ala.) Christian.


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